Is my vegetarian diet giving me enough protein or what?

So, you’ve decided to go vegetarian or maybe even vegan…gasp! Now you’re wondering what to eat instead of meat to get enough protein. I tend to flux between vegan and vegetarian so I just consider myself as always somewhere on the veg spectrum. When I say “vegetarian” I’m referring to anything on said spectrum.

When people find out that I’m a dietitian and a vegetarian they assume that vegetarianism is the pinnacle of health and that I alone have unlocked the secret chamber with every dietary secret to everlasting health and skinniness!

Unfortunately, as with any food choice, just the one doesn’t make or break your health status. A collective of every food/lifestyle choice you make determines your overall health. I know plenty of “pizza vegetarians” that are far from a picture of health and it’s easier than you might think to develop a nutrient deficiency as a vegetarian.

Regardless of any diet choices you make, anytime you’re restricting a large number of foods (animal sourced in this case), you should be thinking about how you’ll replace those nutrients in your diet. Protein isn’t the only nutrient to consider but it’s a big one and a good place to start.

What is protein anyway?

A macronutrient, meaning it supplies calories versus a micronutrient like a vitamin that does not. To over-simplify things, protein is needed in just about everything you ever do as it’s an integral part of the function and structure of every cell in your body. The best definition I’ve seen is that protein “facilitates the biochemical reactions of life that either would run out of control or not run at all without” – Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. I like when text-book authors say things like “out of control” because I just picture a bunch of scientist with their arms flailing around yelling “THESE AMINO ACIDS ARE OUT OF CONTROL!!”

Why should I care about this?

Without it, you are at risk for developing a deficiency which, in extreme cases, can lead to things like fluid accumulation, fatty liver, lean body mass loss, impaired skin integrity, bone loss, and a weakened immune system. Total bummer.

It’s important to know that not all protein is created equal and unfortunately, non-animal sources of protein are, what we in the health biz call – less “bio available” meaning your body is absorbing/using the protein from a cashew a little less efficiently than the protein from an egg. No biggie. Just be aware of it and consider temporarily including some animal sources of protein if you’re health status changes for some reason (example – burns, surgery, pregnancy, wounds, cancer, broken bones…).

A zero animal product lifestyle can absolutely be achieved with these conditions but it’s an advanced move and you should probably meet up with a friendly registered dietitian to help up your protein game so you aren’t compromising your recovery.

How much do I really need in a day?

An otherwise healthy adult with minimal to moderate physical activity is estimated to need 0.8 – 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram. In other words…

weight divided by 2.2 = kilograms

weight in kilograms x 0.8 = grams of protein needed daily

Let’s say that I’m hypothetically 130 pounds (59kg) so, 59 x 0.8 = 47 grams of protein daily

We’ve determined that I need somewhere between 47-59 grams of protein each day. As a vegetarian, I rely on foods like soy milk, quinoa, farro, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, lentils, tofu, chicken…jk jk. Seeing if you stayed awake through that math. Other grains will also contribute to your overall daily protein intake but less so than the others mentioned.

To hit that 47 gram mark in a day, I want to shoot for items that will give me at least 12 grams at each meal and then maybe toss in a snack. Here is a very stripped down example of just the protein items for a meal and assuming average portion sizes.

BREAKFAST soy milk (6g), wheat chex (5g), a scoop of hemp hearts (3g)  = 14g

LUNCH veg wrap (3g), hummus (2g), black beans (7g) = 12g

DINNER lentil soup (12), crusty bread for dunking! (2) = 14g

SNACK soy milk (6g), hand-full of nuts (6g) = 12g

I did it! 52 grams of protein and now I want lentil soup.

Do you see how I could have missed out if I left a protein source out of just 1 meal? If you’re planning on eating dairy and eggs, you’re basically living on easy street in terms of hitting your protein needs but you still have to be mindful of including a protein source at every meal.

A challenge! Check out some food labels in your kitchen. Record your protein for 1 day. No judgement on yourself. Just observe and adjust if needed. Let me know how you did. Maybe you’re already a protein rock star? If that’s the case, I’ll be asking for your autograph that I may or may not sell on eBay.

A stands for Abigail

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